Friday, August 18, 2017

A PERFECT SPY by JOHN LE CARRE' (1986)

Despite its title, this outstanding novel is not primarily a typical action-packed spy thriller. Rather it is a psychological examination of how the childhood and later life experiences shaped the protagonist, Msgnus Pym, into a man perfectly suited to be a highly successful spy -- one who is capable of compartmentalizing his life according to the role he is playing, one who is able to charm and please all people, one who can rationalize and self-justify his betrayal of those who trust him. The title might as well have been "A Perfect Psychopath," because the character traits are much the same.

As the story begins, Magnus Pym has disappeared and M16 (the British equivalent of the CIA) is frantic to find him. If he has been compromised, his whole network of spies and informants must be warned to go into hiding. The American intelligence people are also alarmed, because they have begun to suspect him as a double agent and he knows some of their secrets. His wife is worried because she loves him. As it turns out, Magnus has holed up in his own private safe house and is writing his life story in a letter to his son Tom and his M16 mentor, Jack Brotherhood. The bulk of the novel is his account of growing up motherless as the son of a charming con man who alternately lavished attention on him or abandoned him.

This is an extraordinary novel, on many levels. I have never read a more effective portrayal of how the survival traits developed because of childhood trauma can adversely affect a person. I have seldom read a more well written book. It is subtle, always showing rather than telling. And it is highly suspenseful, despite its lack of James Bond-type derring-do.

Interestingly, in the introduction to the novel the author says that he based the father of the protagonist on his own father. Since the character attempts to exorcise his inner demons by writing, and since Le Carre' was himself once a member of M16 who turned to writing, one can only assume that his character's psyche is a reflection of his own.

I highly recommend this book, even to those who do not ordinarily read in the spy genre.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE MARTIAN by ANDY WEIR (2011, 2014)

This book took me back to my teenage years, back to Robinson Crusoe (without the moralizing) and The Swiss Family Robinson and back to the early science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. It features the same scenario as the first two -- being marooned far from civilization and inventively making do with the materials available to ensure survival. It takes its tone and its wise-cracking hero from Heinlein. The Martian is not original in concept or presentation and, indeed, not too well written, but it is clever and suspenseful and great fun to read. As a plus, it is also scientifically feasible with present technology, according to those who know such things.

The science nerd who is its hero is stranded alone on Mars when the rest of his spaceship crew has to evacuate quickly and has indications to believe that he is dead. Fortunately, they left behind their habitat and equipment, but the communication link to earth was on their escape vehicle. With no way to let anybody know he is still alive and not enough food to last until the next manned mission is scheduled to arrive on the planet, astronaut Mark Watney must figure out a way to survive. Of course, many unforeseen accidents and problems present themselves.

The book is written mostly in first person in the guise of the astronaut's log book. Weir says that the narrative voice he uses is his own voice, written as he would have written if in the astronaut's situation. That would account for the total consistency of characterization. I felt as if I were reading the words of an actual person.

Weir is not so successful in his third-person sections from Mission Control and the departed space ship. Much of this is awkward, with many of the characters sounding suspiciously similar to the hero.

A considerable amount of scientific information is included in the novel, which will undoubtedly be of interest to those so inclined. For those not enthralled by the science, it is written about so engagingly that a reader not among the initiates becomes interested only in seeing whether it will work or not.

The history of the publication of this science fiction novel should be or encouragement to all would-be authors. Weir first self-published it on his website in chapter installments in 2011. It gained a following and many fans asked for an e-book version. He self-published an e-book and sold it on Amazon for 99 cents. It rose to bestseller status in science fiction on Amazon and attracted the attention of print publishers. He sold the book and the movie rights in the same week, in 2014. Since then, it gained a place on the New York Times bestseller list. The movie, starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. What a success story.

My 11-year-old and 13-year-old grandchildren and I all enjoyed this book very much. It is short and for me was literally a one-day read. Recommended for mind refreshment and pure entertainment.

Friday, August 11, 2017

REAL PRESENCES by GEORGE STEINER (1989)

I am sorry to admit to myself that I do not have the required educational background and possibly don't have the required intellect to properly discuss this philosophical examination of the methods of critiquing literature, art, music, and other aesthetic endeavors. The first part of the book is concerned with deconstructionist theory, which I had previously heard of but had not bothered to explore. After reading several internet sources, I now have a vague idea of what deconstructionism means. As I understand it, its practitioners analyze the meanings of texts to expose the contradictions and believe that any text has more than one interpretation. However, I still have no clear idea as to how this would work in practice, in examining a work of literature, for example.

As I understand it, Steiner is here refuting the view of the deconstructionists, declaring instead that great aesthetic works have a definite presence, in his view the presence of a transcendent origin, namely of "the other" -- God or god. I guess you could say that all meaningful aesthetic creations are divinely inspired. He says, of music in particular, that it "puts our being as men and women in touch with that which transcends the sayable, which outstrips the analysable." In contrast, he characterizes the deconstructionist as "masters of emptiness" who leave out "personal response" and instead "play it cool."

My entirely instinctive response is that Steiner is correct that lasting literature, art, and music speak to us in ways that cannot be analyzed, and that any meaningful creation should "change your life." It seems to me that tearing a work to bits, for whatever reason and by whatever method, defeats the aim of its creator. I am a bit dubious, however, as to whether all great artistic works are transcendently inspired. This is a supposition which cannot be proved or disproved. Steiner says, "This essay offers a wager on transcendence."

I confess to intellectual laziness. I read to entertain myself. I have read enough that I think I can distinguish between a work of genius and trash. I do like to learn something about an author and the time and place of a book's action to help me understand the story, but for me to closely analyze a book would be to defeat my purpose.


Monday, August 7, 2017

THE RISEN by RON RASH (2016)

I am coming to be disappointed with Ron Rash. I first read his novel Serena and found it to be outstanding--dramatic, powerful, and poetically written. I next read The Cove, which was also very good, though not on par with Serena. Since then, the others I have read have become more and more disappointing. He is a very good writer, but I don't believe he is trying as hard any more.

This is a story of family estrangement. The middle-aged narrator, a failed writer and alcoholic, tells of his alienation from his successful surgeon brother, flashing back to their teenage years in the 1960s when a mysterious girl, wise in the ways of the emerging counter-culture, comes between them. During a summer of alcohol, drugs, and free love festering resentments emerge. Back in the present, the narrator learns that the girl's bones have been discovered on the banks of the stream where they had once met, although his brother had told him that she left town on a bus.

The remainder of the book is the narrator's quest to find out what really happened.

Family resentments have come to be somewhat overdone as a concept for a novel, and this book adds nothing new. The mystery of what happened to the girl adds a new element, except that I figured it out about half way through.

This is not bad light reading, but I expected much more. It is very short (153 pages), and actually reads more like a short story. It would make a good beach book.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

BLACK ELK SPEAKS by BLACK ELK in collaberation with JOHN G. NEIHARDT (1932)

Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota visionary and healer who lived from 1863 to 1950. In 1931 he was extensively interviewed through an interpreter by the poet and historian John Neihardt, who transcribed this account. Black Elk tells of his youth, when he received the first of his many visions, of various battles with the US Calvary, including Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and of his efforts to restore his people when they were starving on the reservations, cheated of their promised food from the government. He witnessed the destruction of a way of life and a culture in his lifetime.

A considerable portion of the book is given to very specific details about the various visions Black Elk experienced and of ceremonial practices and dances. The reader may believe or disbelieve in the authenticity and origin of the visions, dependent upon his or her spiritual views. Black Elk says that he was chosen to receive them and they gave him the power to heal.

The more factual portions of the book tell a sad story, as one would expect. The shameful perfidy of the United States government in their treatment of the Native Americans is now well known. Treaty after treaty was broken. The white man's greed destroyed their food supply and pushed them onto land that was considered undesirable, only to take that land, too, when gold was discovered. Herded onto reservations, they were promised food supply, only to receive half of what was promised, if even that. This was certainly an instance when America was not Great.

Following Black Elk's memoir are several appendices which augment the information.

This is a book which should be a part of every American high school curriculum.


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Greed and the U.S. government are still sticking it to the Native American people today. The Dakota Pipeline across their land has the very real possibility of leaking oil into their water supply. It has already sprung some leaks, in fact. Ain't Murica Great!





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SHAMELA (1740) and JOSEPH ANDREWS (1741) by HENRY FIELDING


Shamela

Henry Fielding wrote Shamela in response to Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the highly popular novel about a young servant girl's virtuous conduct which led to her marriage into the gentry (I reviewed Pamela last month). I had not read this response when I wrote my review of Richardson's book, and I am delighted to find that my viewpoint was shared by some readers of the time -- the lady did protest too much. Fielding's Shamela is a satire, revealing the heroine to be a conniver who pretends to virtue in order to gain the prize of a rich husband. It is very humorous, poking fun at the moral hypocrisy of its target.

To enjoy this short novella, one must have first read Pamela.


Joseph Andrews

Although this novel begins with the attempted seduction of the hero, who is the brother of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, it soon reveals itself not to be patterned after Richardson's novel, but instead after Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. As it turns out, Joseph Andrews does not reject the advances of his Mistress, Lady Booby, because he is being coy or even particularly virtuous, but because he is pining for his one true love, Fanny, a servant girl from his home village. His picaresque journey home, accompanied by a churchman, Parson Adams, imitates the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Despite expectations raised by the title, the parson is the innocent who resembles Cervantes' hero. He is naively well-intentioned, forgetful, and always expects the best from those he meets. However, when he is roused by the wrongs which he (finally) perceives, he is a fearless fighter. He and Joseph, and later Fanny, get into one scrape after another, with often hilarious results.

Fielding's cast of characters span all social levels, with the gentry receiving the majority of his satirical thrusts. A substantial amount of the humor is directed at actual persons of his time, which would have been of interest back then, but which is of little or no import to the modern reader. But there is still plenty to poke fun at in the foibles of humans in general, which are much the same now as in the 18th century.

With this novel, Fielding was gearing up for his comic masterpiece, Tom Jones, which was written in 1749. Everybody should read that one, for sure.